President Reagan's tentative decision to continue complying with the expired SALT II arms limitation treaty has provoked a new disagreement among his advisers over how the action should be publicly portrayed, administration sources said today.
White House officials had originally decided to announce the SALT II decision before or during the president's current Asian trip. But before leaving, they decided to wait until after Reagan meets allied leaders here at the seven-nation economic summit that begins Sunday.
One senior official, describing the internal disagreement, said the announcement of Reagan's decision is now several weeks away.
At issue is whether Reagan makes an explicit link with continued SALT II compliance when he announces his decision, or ignores the treaty issue in presenting the action.
Officials said the allied leaders and foreign ministers here are expected to make a strong appeal to Reagan to affirm his desire to continue complying with the treaty, and this could influence his final decision on the matter.
White House officials said today that in addition to the SALT II issue, Reagan is also planning to talk to the allied leaders about the U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations in Geneva, which resume May 8, and the prospects for a summit this year between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The leaders from the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Britain, West Germany and Italy are expected to take up these issues at their opening dinner Sunday night, presidential spokesman Larry Speakes announced today.
Both Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and French President Francois Mitterrand are expected to meet Gorbachev before Reagan does this year and sources here say Reagan is expected to discuss the approaches he and the other leaders will take to Gorbachev on arms control.
Reagan had tentatively decided last month to begin dismantling two Poseidon nuclear submarines this month to stay within the SALT II treaty limits, while reserving the option to exceed the limits later for military reasons, if needed.
The dismantling was required to stay within the treaty limits as a new Trident nuclear submarine, the USS Nevada, begins sea trials this month.
The sources said today that while Reagan had tentatively decided on the policy of dismantling the submarines, two factions in the administration are at odds on how to "play" Reagan's decision publicly.
According to the sources, one group, reflecting the thinking of Secretary of State George P. Shultz and his advisers, is arguing that dismantling the two submarines be presented as part of a continuing desire by Reagan not to undercut the strategic arms treaty, while leaving the options open on future compliance. This view holds that Reagan does not have to make a major break with the treaty now, but can make such a decision later this year if warranted by continued Soviet violations.
Another group, reflecting the views of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, is urging Reagan not to describe the dismantling of the submarines as part of a SALT II compliance move.
On a related topic, a senior official expressed confidence today that Reagan would meet Gorbachev despite the postponement of a planning meeting between Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.